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Putting Mentally Disabled at Risk Is No Way to Cut Corners

Demolishing a building that dates back to the days of asbestos is a complicated business. You need to examine the construction method and, often, call in the men in white suits.

When the Federal Aviation Administration decided to knock down an old guard shack last year on the grounds of the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, no such precautions were taken. Instead, managers called in a crew of mentally disabled people and put them to work at the site, which had been found in 1993 to contain asbestos.

Now, the FAA says, the agency's inspector general, federal prosecutors in Alexandria and a grand jury are investigating whether the decision to give part of the job to people with severe disabilities was a purposeful attempt to circumvent procedures.

"They used a groundskeeping crew from a disadvantaged group to clean up the debris," said Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman. She said federal investigators are looking into whether FAA managers knowingly assigned the crew to a job involving toxic materials, endangering the workers' health.

The guard shack, which had two small rooms and was about the size of a walk-in closet, became superfluous after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the FAA extended the security perimeter around the facility. The center, with about 400 workers, handles air traffic from the Carolinas to New Jersey, including the busy airspace over the Washington area's three major airports.

Shortly after the demolition in July, a security guard at the traffic control center, at Route 7 and Lawson Road, told superiors that "mentally-challenged contract employees were disposing of asbestos containing material," according to an FAA white paper on the incident obtained by The Washington Post.

It wasn't until a month after the work was done that FAA managers checked a 1993 survey of asbestos at the facility and concluded that the floor tiles in the shack contained the toxic material, the report says.

The FAA's initial report on the incident quoted a manager at the site who said that the crew of mentally disabled workers "was not involved in the incident," but Spitaliere says that is not true.

"We didn't follow our own procedures," which require special permits and handling of material that contains asbestos, she said, adding that a required pre-demolition test for asbestos "was not done." And the FAA was unable to trace where the debris ended up; federal environmental regulations require that asbestos-laden materials be placed in labeled bags and sent to an approved landfill.

Spokesmen for the U.S. attorney in Alexandria and the U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general said their policy is not to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

A crew of about half a dozen workers from Echo Inc. (Every Citizen Has Opportunities), a Leesburg-based charity that trains and provides jobs for mentally retarded and other disabled people in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, has handled groundskeeping duties at the FAA facility for three decades, Echo Executive Director William Haney said.

Haney said that when he heard about the asbestos incident, he asked the FAA for a written report on what role his workers had played but "never got anything." Haney was told that the workers' role in the demolition was "incidental," but, he said, "I just don't know what went on."

Rich Santa, who represents the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union at the Leesburg facility, says FAA employees there determined that the mentally disabled workers were ordered to handle asbestos-laden material without any protective gear. He says an FAA worker who reported the incident to managers at the center was told to mind his own business.

"Management said first that there was no problem and then that it was handled properly," Santa said.

Spitaliere, the FAA spokeswoman, says the manager who ordered the crew to handle the debris from the guard shack "is no longer in that position." She declined to say where he is stationed.

Santa said that especially because asbestos had been found at other structures on the center's campus, managers knew better than to charge ahead with demolition.

"The idea that someone would say, 'Have the handicapped people do it' is very disturbing," he said. "They just cut the grass and do the weeding. They work so hard."

The government managers worked hard, too -- at cutting corners and taking advantage of those who most need our care.

By Marc Fisher |  March 16, 2008; 8:41 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

All I know about this incident I learned from Fisher's article. No doubt the disabled workers should not have been assigned to do the demolition. Also, no doubt the FAA should look into whether the assignment of those workers to the job was negligent or "purposeful". That said, Fisher discloses that the shack demolished was the size of a walk in closet and that the asbestos was in the floor tiles in that structure; then he orders up the tumbril and awaits the execution of the fool who assigned the workers to do the job. No chance the manager was just a dope who, looking at the size of the job, made a dope's decision. To the guillotine! If Fisher is ever called for jury duty, I like to fantasize that a lawyer will whip out this piece and challenge Fisher's ability to await the facts before pronouncing judgment.

Posted by: Lou Sernoff | March 16, 2008 7:21 PM

As the parent of a mentally handicapped child, this article is chilling! Have they done any follow-up on the health of the handicapped workers? Are they planning to? Problems may not show up right away.
You can press charges against a parent who leaves a child in a hot car, don't these unprotected workers have any right to expect protection? Or were they counting on the workers not complaining?

Posted by: Jo Ann Gauerke | March 16, 2008 9:55 PM

I appreciate this coming to light in the public forum. I have been involved in this case for some time as a regional vice president for the Professional Airways Sytem Specialists. My understanding is that the manager in question was advised that the building contained asbestos in advance of the grounds keeping folks being tasked with placing the ACM in dumpsters. Further this supervisor was aware of the requirements to obtain a work permit, implement appropriate controls and to dispose of any asbestos containing material properly. As it turns out there were many other questionable practices ongoing in the facility, all under the direction of the same ATO manager. Given all that I am aware of, I must disagree with Mr. Sernoff's posting which suggests human error. From what I understand this manager choose his course of action based on what would be the least troublesome for him, with little regard for rule, regulation, or the welfare of the employees. Fortunately some employees were courageous enough to bring this to light.

Posted by: Luke Drake | March 17, 2008 10:34 AM

I am the guard that reported the incident. There are a couple items left out. First I called the Manager to warn him that there was asbestos in the building before they started demolition.His answer to me was to shut up about it. I even told him that the enviornmental specialist on site knew about it.
Second, a week later when I saw an ECHO person rooting thru the dumpster where the hazardous material was being collected and other ECHO personal picking up pieces of the tile that had fallen off the slab of concrete,I felt it was my responsability to notify someone. I saw the Asst Manager coming in the gate and I told him what i saw.He said he would tell the Manager. Five minutes later I got a call from the Manager saying I told you to "shut up about it".
Third The F.A.A has an order called 1600-69B that tells me what my job description is. It says as head of security I am to report all safety and security violations. That is what I did. On AUG 30 I was barred from all F.A.A sites and fired because I caused a crimminal investigation that was proven to be false according to the Manager.
The only people that made false statements were the Managers of the F.A.A and the investigation was proven to be true

Posted by: George Lancio | March 19, 2008 5:38 PM

This story makes me sick to my stomach. What kind of person assigns handicapped people to clean up hazardous material, tries to cover it up, and then fires the guard who stood up for what is right...and still sleep at night! The guard should sue the FAA back into the stone age and call CNN, FOX, and every other news outlet on the planet. If you can't beat em'...embarrass em'!

Posted by: n/a | March 22, 2008 6:11 AM

The biggest thing missing from the story was the fact the Guard was FIRED as retribution for bringing this to peoples attention. If any readers can bring any pressure to bear on the FAA to reinstate this guard, one of the wrongs will be righted.

Posted by: I'll be fired too | March 22, 2008 6:42 PM

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